U.S. Recognition of Israel, 14 May 1948. Part I: Roosevelt, Truman, Marshall: A Sequence of Contingencies

Part I: Uncertainties

See also

Part II: U.S. Recognition of Israel, 14 May 1948: Truman’s Belated Support

Part III:  U.S. Recognition of Israel, 14 May 1948: ‘A Near-Run Thing’

William M. Mathew


Zionism`s two most notable international successes in the 20th century were the U.K. Balfour Declaration, 2 November 1917, and the U.S. recognition of the nascent state of Israel, 14 May 1948. Neither, however, delivered the unqualified great-power support that the Zionists sought, arising as they did from a variety of short-term, partly war-related contingencies and not from any irresistible forces of history. As British support for Zionism progressively weakened over the decades of Mandate rule, and as American recognition was a last-gasp, uncertain gesture, Zionists realised that their scheme could only survive and flourish into the future if they took matters forcefully into their own hands in Palestine, Such compulsion was further energised by the realisation, more or less from the outset, that their project, however idealistic in aspiration, was in its political realities and spirit a carry-over from 19th-century colonialism and, as such, regressive and doomed to failure unless propped up by militarised self-protection and territorial expansion: what the Haganah later termed aggressive defence and the revisionist Zionist Ze`ev Jabotinsky conceptualised as the ‘iron wall’. Clement Attlee, prime minister when the British Mandate ended in 1948, expressed the essential truth with characteristic succinctness: `The interests of Arab and Jew in Palestine were quite irreconcilable.`

This is the broad schema within which the three-part article is offered. The bulk of the text, however (following an earlier post on Balfour) , is taken up with America`s stumbling decision to recognise the new Zionist state moments after its creation, and the political circumstances and calculations, under the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, latterly involving Truman`s secretary of state George Marshall, that led up to that profoundly consequential decision.



The 1948 American recognition of Israel and its antecedents have attracted much attention over the years in the form of scholarly studies, biographies, memoirs, contemporary surveys, and official reports, and it is one of the purposes of this article, drawing on such literature dating back to the 1940s, to point to the immense complexities of situation and opinion underlying the momentous policy’s final realisation. It will also be suggested that the circumstances of the recognition bear some intriguing similarities to those prevailing at the time of Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917 – from which U.S. Palestine policy in 1948 was a natural outcome, coming into force only minutes after British mandated rule in the territory came to an end.

In a previous post marking the centenary of Balfour (‘The Balfour Declaration, 2 November 1917: A Fateful Improbability’), I set out four particular contingencies underlying the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, as announced by the war-time Lloyd George coalition in London. Any one of these, if absent, might have scuppered the whole Zionist project – first, the Ottoman Empire suddenly reversing its historic role in 1914 as an ally of Britain’s into an enemy belligerent, thereby rendering Palestine a target for British assault; second, the replacement in 1916 of Herbert Asquith as prime minister by David Lloyd George, a supporter of Zionism and of the capture of Palestine as a desirable prize of war close by the strategically vital Suez Canal; third, the presence in London of the vigorous Zionist propagandist Chaim Weizmann, a man with wide connections at the highest level of government in Britain; and fourth, the political neutering of Lord Curzon, lord president of the Council and later foreign secretary – as a past viceroy of India the best-informed individual on Eastern affairs in the government, but, problematically for Lloyd George, also the person most authoritatively anti-Zionist in his war cabinet.

There are no equivalences in 1948 for the conquest of Palestine: the Americans were not invaders in the Middle East. But there are distinct resonances for the other three: the sudden death in April 1945 of Franklin Roosevelt, a man at best ambivalent over the merits of Jewish nationhood in Palestine, and his replacement by the more sympathetically inclined Harry Truman; the appearance in the White House at a critical juncture of no less a throwback to 1917 than Chaim Weizmann; and the political marginalising of the anti-Zionist secretary of state, George Marshall, representing the department that was itself uncompromisingly anti-Zionist – this reverse for Marshall happening dramatically and decisively in the course of a single afternoon in the White House, 12 May, just two days before the end of the British Mandate and the Jewish homeland’s declaration of independence. Thus, Lloyd George through to Truman; Curzon to Marshall; and Weizmann to his older self.

Circumstantially, of course, 1948 was radically different from 1917. The dating was post-war rather than war-time; there was no invasion, as in 1917-18, by the supportive power; there had been vigorous public debate on Zionism over the years preceding the recognition in contrast to the privacy of Jewish diplomacy leading up to Balfour; the U.S. decision followed not periodic pogroms against Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, as in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, but the immeasurably more catastrophic Nazi Holocaust; and it came after decades-long experience of Zionism-on-the-ground and much resultant Arab-Jewish conflict – an unknown issue in Ottoman Palestine with its small millennia-old Jewish community in the years before 1917.

Caveats aside, the recurring incidence of unanticipated contingency, 1917 and 1948 – along with the widespread forebodings that were contemporaneously articulated in the United Kingdom and the United States, over homeland and state respectively – is not just a matter of historical curiosity, representing capricious turns of events of no fundamental significance. The improbabilities characterising both policies meant that Zionist Jews, from the very outset, and in a way that profoundly affected their political behaviour, had an unsettling and persisting sense of the fragility of first British, and then American, commitments to their cause and to their long-term sustainability once the pressures of war in 1917 and of post-war disarray in 1948 had passed. Apart from a brief interlude in the mid-1920s, crisis followed crisis in Palestine, and with them endlessly ineffectual investigations into the intractable inter-communal conflicts – Michael T. Benson writing how ‘the dreary compilations of commissions, committees, boards, and inquiries since the 1920s had become an ever-widening sea of paper, a barrier that had kept the Jews from their promised land of refuge’. (Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel [1997].)

The Zionist leadership, apprehensive and insecure in both domestic and international contexts, felt compelled to pursue their programme through the decades with as much forceful self-assertion and belligerent purpose as they could muster. The American rabbi Stephen Wise and the Anglo-American journalist Jacob de Haas, objecting to the British (Passfield) White Paper of 1930 – which proposed strict limits to Jewish immigration following the bloody inter-communal riots of 1929 – published a book entitled The Great Betrayal (1930), describing what they termed ‘the descent from Balfour to Passfield’ as ‘an appallingly complete annulment of what had been assumed by the nations to have become an unalterable British obligation’ and reminding their readers ‘that the case of the Jews in all countries is absolutely exceptional, falls outside all the ordinary rules and maxims…’. The British White Paper had ‘turned the Jewish World black with mourning’. Facing up to insistent Zionist demands for presidential support in Washington in the mid-1940s, Harry Truman later recalled: ‘I do not think I ever had as much pressure and propaganda aimed at the White House as I had in this instance. The persistence of a few of the extreme Zionist leaders – actuated by political motives and engaging in political threats – disturbed and annoyed me’. (Harry Truman, 1946-52: Years of Trial and Hope [1955].) Benson reproduces a calculation made by White House staff that, in 1947 and 1948, Truman had been sent 48,600 telegrams, 790,575 cards, and 81,200 other items of mail on the issue of Palestine. Writing to the Florida senator, Claude Pepper, in October 1947, the President claimed that he had lately ‘received about 35,000 pieces of mail and propaganda from the Jews in the country….I put it all in a pile and struck a match to it – I never looked at a single one of the letters…’.

Adding to chronic Zionist unease over Great Power commitment was the knowledge that their achievement was problematically colonialist at a time when European empires around the world were terminally crumbling. The course of events was now taking, albeit hesitantly, a different, post-colonial direction. Zionism, in territorial terms – and as I have argued elsewhere (‘War-time Contingency and the Balfour Declaration of 1917. An Improbable Regression’, Journal of Palestine Studies, XL[2] [Winter 2011]) – was an historical anomaly. As Arthur Balfour himself expressed it, in characteristically circuitous terms, the entire notion of ‘planting a minority of outsiders on a majority population, without consulting it, was not calculated to horrify men who worked with Cecil Rhodes or promoted European settlement in Kenya’. The authors of the declaration and the Mandate, wrote Robert Nathan in a mid-1940s report on Palestine, ‘recognized that they were enunciating a policy that would not command the support of the Palestine Arabs’, consciously imposing ‘a political sacrifice’ on the resident population. (Robert R. Nathan, with Oscar Gass and Daniel Creamer, Palestine: Problem and Promise [1946].) Clement Attlee (of whom much more later), prime minister at the time of America’s recognition of Israel, told his biographer in 1960: ‘We’d started something in the Jewish National Home after World War One without perceiving the consequences; it was done in a very thoughtless way with people of a different outlook on civilisation suddenly imported into Palestine – a wild experiment that was bound to cause trouble….The interests of Arab and Jew in Palestine were quite irreconcilable’. (Twilight of Empire. Memoirs of Prime Minister Clement Attlee. As set down by Francis Williams [1960].)

The British had wrestled with these consequences for over 30 years. The impossibilities were becoming increasingly evident to the United States as the end of the Mandate approached. And the Zionists, observing the political mayhem afflicting their possible sponsors, developed the clear conviction that their future lay in their own hands – and that violent means, not diplomacy, were required to secure it.


It is important at the outset to understand the broad political and institutional environment within which Zionist politics was being conducted in America. Zionism as both ideology and practice in Palestine was vigorously debated there from the 1920s onwards, energised by the growing Jewish populations in the major urban centres (Jews in New York state alone numbering 2.2 million in 1937), and featuring much conflict between pro- and anti-Zionist groupings – especially the differing perspectives of officialdom in Washington, most notably the State Department, on the one hand, and the country’s elected representatives in the Senate and the House of Representatives on the other. Congress supportive of Zionism; bureaucracy opposed; and American Jews, straddling both sides of the argument.

There were never serious proposals from any quarter to alleviate post-war Jewish distress in Europe by allowing increasing numbers to come into the United States itself. The Immigration Act of May 1924 (otherwise Johnson-Reed) set out, among other things, to ensure that large-scale migration from the Jewish communities of Europe was radically reduced, one of its sponsors, Senator David Reed, specifying the motive of ‘keeping American stock up to the highest standards – that is, people who were born here’. President Herbert Hoover’s executive order of 1931 further tightened the screw, denying entry to all persons ‘likely to become a public charge’. Average annual Jewish immigration consequently fell from 51,077 in 1922-24 to 4,338 in 1931-36. (‘Statistics of Jews’, The American Jewish Yearbook (1946 edn.) It was the Arabs in Palestine, largely missing from American conversations, who were expected to play host. In as much as they were accorded relevance, it was, come the 1940s, largely in relation to burgeoning supplies of Middle Eastern oil and their growing importance to America, where domestic resources seemed unlikely to satisfy the country’s economic and military needs over the decades ahead.

a) The State Department, in part because of its obligatory international remit and its wide strategic concerns, was unflinchingly opposed to Zionism. Philip J. Baram in his volume The Department of State in the Middle East 1919-1945 (1978), writes: ‘In the duel between the State Department and American Zionists, the latter were increasingly the losers from the mid-1920s on – despite pro-Zionist endorsements and testimonials to the contrary on the Congressional and state legislature levels, despite seasonal White House proclamations of cordiality, and despite all the appearances of political-ethnic “clout”’. Zionism was largely dismissed as ‘a chronic nuisance and chimerical hope’, the Department considering that, in its various policy positionings, ‘there was no reason to fear alienating pro-Zionist feelings, since American Zionists were statistically unrepresentative of America’s Jews who, in turn, were an atypical minority’. Truman records that ‘The Department of States’s specialists on the Near East were, almost without exception, unfriendly to the idea of a Jewish state. Their thinking went along this line: Great Britain has maintained her position in the area by cultivating the Arabs; now that she seems no longer able to hold this position, the United States must take over, and it must be done by exactly the same formula; if the Arabs are antagonized, they will go over into the Soviet camp’.

Truman’s most prestigious appointee, George Marshall at State – ‘the great one of the age’, as the President described him on one of his appointments calendars – was solidly opposed to Zionism right up to and beyond his country’s recognition of Israel. Debi and Irwin Unger, in a recent study of the general – George Marshall. A Biography (2014) – note that ‘though he recognized the humanitarian aspects of the Palestine issue, Marshall did not share the sentimental affinity for Zionism of the avid Christian Bible readers. To him, as to the pro-Arab officers of the State Department, the Palestine issue ultimately boiled down to expediency. The United States must choose what was best for the United States; the rest was irrelevant’. Loy Henderson, head of the Near Eastern Bureau at State, reported to Marshall: ‘partitioning of Palestine and the setting up of a Jewish state [is opposed] by practically every member of the Foreign Service and the [State] Department who has been engaged…with the Near and Middle East’. (Dennis Ross, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama [2015].) Dean Acheson, Marshall’s under secretary (and imminent successor), warned that any attempt to turn Palestine into a Jewish state would ‘imperil…all Western interests in the Near East’.

George Kennan, founder of the Policy Planning Council at the Department, set out the salient factors governing American interests in 1948: ‘Palestine occupies a geographic position of great strategic significance to the United States. It is important for the control of the eastern end of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. It is an outlet for the oil of the Middle East; which, in turn, is important to U.S. security. Finally, it is the center of a number of major political cross currents; and events in Palestine cannot help being reflected in a number of directions. For these reasons, and particularly in view of the Soviet pressure against the periphery of that area, and Soviet infiltration into the area, it is important that political, economic, and social stability be maintained there’. The U.S. had to bear in mind that ‘their support of the principles of self-determination was a basic factor in the creation of the Arab states out of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1’, and that recent American interest in Zionism had ‘already brought about the loss of U.S. prestige…’. (Quoted in Benson, op. cit.)

b) Considering the recent closeness of the U.S.-Israel relationship, it might seem surprising not only that the State Department was hostile to Zionism, but that a majority in American Jewry in the inter-war years proclaimed themselves against any notion of a Palestinian homeland or state, their ethnic and political compulsions being towards assimilation and acceptance as thoroughgoing U.S. citizens, relieving themselves of accusations of dual allegiance as ‘hyphenated Americans’. Any seemingly ambivalent attachment to the country would, in James Renton’s words, exacerbate ‘the cleavages that already stratified a diverse community that was suffering from the pressures of nativism and war’. (The Zionist Masquerade. The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance, 1914-1918 [2007].) And the very idea of emigrating from maturing urban communities in America to the sparcities of the Levantine desert was generally unappealing.

Reform Jews, the dominant body in the country by the late 19th century, Germanic in origin and broadly imitative of Protestant morality and practice, were explicitly anti-Zionist. By Howard R. Greenstein’s account (Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism [1981]), their early leaders were ‘liberals intellectually’, and ‘firm believers in the political Messianism which proclaimed the imminent brotherhood of all men’, insisting ‘that Reform Judaism was not only a religion for the liberated mind of the new day, but it was now and for ever anti-nationalist’. As the Reform rabbi David Philipson expressed it in 1929: ‘To those of us who are Jews in religion and Americans in nationality, political Zionism was anathema’. The modern Jew, detached from ancient rituals in the synagogue (with ‘temple’ now the preferred term), was essentially a moral rather than political force in the world, a ‘light unto the nations’ as the common phrase had it.

As time went by, however, and growing numbers emigrated to the U.S. from eastern Europe – more than two million from Russia, Austria-Hungary and Romania, 1880-1924 (‘Statistics of Jews’ [op. cit.]) – such universalist convictions weakened, Zionism becoming increasingly appealing as a form of Middle Eastern rescue for suffering Jewry. As Greenstein observes: ‘Reform Judaism emerged out of the emancipation of Western Europe, especially in Germany. Zionism arose out of the kind of repressive conditions which prevailed in Eastern Europe’. The trend away from anti-Zionism is well documented by Alan Silverstein in his Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture 1840-1930 (1994). Towards the end of his study, however, he indicates that, despite the long-term dilutions, ‘Anti-Zionism remained strong and vocal throughout World War II among Reform rabbis, producing the [assimilationist] American Council for Judaism in 1942. Many Reform leaders remained passionately anti-Zionist until the Six-Day War of 1967’.

c) It was in Congress as it happened that the Zionists received their most consistent support – the gulf separating it from State (and, latterly, the Pentagon [established January 1943] as well) being more or less unbridgeable. This dramatic divide built on a much earlier, and unanimous, Congressional resolution of June 1922 repeating almost word-for-word the terms of the Balfour Declaration of five years earlier. In his 1944 study of congressional Zionism, America and Palestine. The Attitude of Official America and of the American People Toward the Rebuilding of Palestine as a Free and Democratic Jewish Commonwealth, Reuben Fink listed 83 senators and 328 representatives (86 and 75 per cent of their respective Houses) declaring in favour of the ‘Palestine Resolution’ of February 1944 as tabled by Senators Robert F. Wagner of New York and Robert A. Taft of Ohio: ‘That the United States shall use its good offices and take appropriate measures to the end that the doors of Palestine shall be opened for free entry of Jews into that country, and that there shall be full opportunity for colonization so that the Jewish people may ultimately reconstitute Palestine as a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth’. The resident Arab population did not merit a mention. Declaring in similar spirit of unabashed Zionism were the legislatures of 20 states, representing over 60 per cent of the American population, as well as 28 municipalities and the American Federation of Labour.

d) As for the presidency, comment can be deferred, concerning as it does two of the three individuals central to this account – save to say that Franklin Roosevelt largely represented himself having as-it-were transcended mundane Democratic Party concerns by the mid-1940s. Harry Truman and George Marshall, however, did reflect broader national perspectives: Truman, a senator since 1935 with a Congressional mindset, sympathetic to Zionism; and Marshall, a former soldier serving abroad in both World Wars, and secretary of state 1947-49, reflecting his own international perspectives and those of his Department, with a clear-minded hostility towards Zionism.


Franklin Roosevelt’s death on 12 April 1945, aged just 63, and only months after his decisive re-election to a fourth term as president, winning 53 per cent of the popular vote and 36 of the 48 states, was sudden. He was working on a speech in an armchair at his Georgia retreat, Warm Springs, at lunchtime, and was dead from a massive cerebral haemorrhage by mid-afternoon. It was a shock to the nation, but really no great surprise, Roosevelt having been a visibly ill man over the preceding two or three years, though with the specifics of his condition largely unknown to the general public – these including pulmonary disorders, an enlarged heart, angina, and hypertension (his blood pressure periodically reaching 220 over 120). General Douglas MacArthur, meeting him in July 1944, told his personal physician: ‘Doc, the mark of death is on him! In six months he’ll be in his grave’. He was not out by much. As the President had told MacArthur in the summer; ‘I’ll beat that son of a bitch [Thomas E. Dewey, his Republican opponent]… if it’s the last thing I do’.

For the most part, over his previous terms, Roosevelt had been either uninterested in, or ambivalent on, Jewish affairs, being preoccupied in the 1930s by the politics of the Depression and the New Deal, and in the early 1940s by World War. A much publicised event, just before hostilities, was the arrival of the ship St. Louis in U.S. waters carrying 973 Jewish refugees, and Roosevelt’s blunt refusal to allow it to dock in any American port – the vessel returning to Europe, and more than 200 of its passengers subsequently dying in Nazi concentration camps. (Charles Rivers Editors, The Voyage of the St. Louis. The History and Legacy of the Fateful Attempt to Resettle Jewish Refugees Before World War II and the Holocaust [2017].) A further charge, recently upheld by Rafael Medoff, is that the Roosevelt administration towards the end of the war ‘had the ability to interrupt the mass murder of European Jewry but failed to do so’ – most notably through the refusal to bomb Auschwitz and the rail tracks thereto, as requested by the Jewish Agency. (‘The Roosevelt Adminstration, David Ben-Guron, and the Failure to Bomb Auschwitz; A Mystery Solved’, newdeal.feri.org/FERI/index.htm.)

Chaim Weizmann, recording a conversation with the President in February 1940, in which he ‘tried to sound him out on the likelihood of American interest in a new departure in Palestine’, found that although he was ‘friendly’, displaying ‘a lively interest’, his comments on the subject ‘remained theoretical’. (Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann, Book II [1950].) The best way he could help Jews, Roosevelt considered, was to win the war. As victory neared, his involvement remained marginal, his hope being that the whole issue of Palestine and its future, following the imminent end of the British Mandate, could be resolved at the soon-to-be established United Nations. Dennis Ross (op. cit.) notes a fundamental ambivalence: ‘he juggled the conflicting attitudes and pressures and basically equivocated, believing there would be time after the war to solve the problem’. It seems to be generally accepted in recent scholarship that he was not profoundly affected by the sufferings of Jewry in Europe – these continuing in refugee camps well into the post-war years. He showed little interest in making the hapless victims exceptions to the harsh rules of American immigration policy as prevailing since 1924.

When he did engage, Roosevelt usually offered himself as all things to all men, assuming, through a combination of limited knowledge and self-delusion, that his personal charm and authority could bring the contending sides together. (Harry Truman’s one worry about Roosevelt, he later recorded, was ‘that growing ego of his, which probably wasn’t too miniscule to start with’.) ‘His favored technique’, observe Allis and Ronald Radosh in their A Safe Haven. Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel (2009), ‘was to assure representatives of the various groups that he stood with them, giving all a false hope that the president shared their agenda’. Damagingly, they point out, his ‘contradictory positions and vacillations created havoc at the State Department’.

Roosevelt did, however, leave some pertinent last words on the subject of Palestine, these following an extraordinary meeting on 15 February 1945 with the Saudi king, Ibn Saud, on his way home from the Yalta Conference with Churchill and Stalin, and only two months before his death, when he played extravagant host to the king aboard an American naval vessel, anchored in the Suez Canal’s Great Bitter Lake. His cavalier notion had been that he and the Arab potentate might, on their own, be able to sort out the whole troubling issue of Palestine – especially if all appropriate deferences and flatteries were accorded the king. The cruiser USS Quincy, that had been assigned to Ibn Saud, had, according to one newspaper report, been transformed into an ‘Arab Court in Miniature’, with dozens of oriental carpets spread on deck, a royal tent placed in front of one of the gun turrets, and a pen large enough for numbers of sheep to provide fresh lamb on a daily basis for the entire Saudi party of royalty, officials, Nubian soldiers, an astrologer, and sundry slaves, porters, cooks, and scullions. The encounter is vividly described in Thomas W. Lippman’s Arabian Knight. Colonel Bill Eddy USMC and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East (2008) – Eddy, who organised the meeting and served as interpreter, being the senior U.S. diplomat in Jeddah, and later American ambassador to the Saudi kingdom.

When the two men sat down Roosevelt immediately raised the issue of Jewish refugees in Europe. How might they be rescued and settled? Ibn Saud’s reply, reportedly, was that they should be given ‘living space in the Axis countries which oppressed them….Make the enemy and the oppressor pay; that is how we Arabs wage war’. His people, he declared, ‘would rather die than yield their land to the Jews’. Agreeing to any Zionist scheme would, Eddy recorded, ’cause him to lose the respect which he now commands from his co-religionists… and could even result in the overthrow of his dynasty’. Roosevelt, realising through almost four hours of exchanges that compromises on the issue were manifestly out of the question, stated ‘that he wished to assure His Majesty that he would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arab people’, and that his government would make no change to its present policies ‘without full and prior consultation with both Jews and Arabs’. Back in the U.S., and just a week before his death, he sent a letter to his ‘Great and Good Friend’ confirming that he ‘would take no action, in my capacity as chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people’.

On his return to Washington, the President told Congress, in words that horrified the Zionists: ‘I learned more about that whole problem – the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem – by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters…’. One of the very last meetings he held at the White House before his final trip to Georgia was with two leaders of the anti-Zionist American Jewish Committee, Judge Joseph M. Proskauer and the industrialist Jacob Blaustein. He told them, by Proskauer’s account, ‘that he gravely feared a continuation of the agitation for a Jewish state’. Not only might it intensify inter-communal strife in Palestine, but could indeed being about a third world war. The ‘project of a Jewish state in Palestine was, under present conditions, impossible of accomplishment’. The best hope for the Jews, the President suggested, was to secure liberal immigration into Palestine under the existing British Mandate, and to work for Jewish rights throughout the world under the auspices of the United Nations.

These were his last recorded words on Zionism. In Dennis Ross’s account (op.cit), the White House aide David K. Niles (who served both Roosevelt and Truman) confessed to having ‘serious doubts…that Israel would have come into being if Roosevelt had lived’. Allis and Ronald Radosh (op. cit.) offer the same judgement: ‘It seems fair to conclude…that if FDR had lived and Truman not been president, there probably would not have been an Israel’.


Summoned to the White House on the afternoon of Roosevelt’s death, Harry Truman’s muttered response was, reportedly, ‘Jesus Christ and General Jackson’. Confirming her husband’s passing, Eleanor Roosevelt asked: ‘Is there anything we can do for you, Harry? For you are the one in trouble now’. This was a major shock to the American polity. Robert Dallek observes in his biography, Harry S. Truman (2008): ‘A vice president with no national executive experience was now to replace the longest serving and most revered president since Lincoln, in the midst of a world war’ – Truman telling reporters shortly after that it was as if ‘the moon, the stars and the planets had all fallen on me’. He had not been privy to any of Roosevelt’s recent private diplomacy, or to his thoughts on Middle Eastern or any other foreign affairs. ‘Truman doesn’t know what’s going on,’ wrote one Washington journalist shortly before the President’s death. ‘Roosevelt won’t tell him anything’. Apart from lunching at the White House in August 1948 (briefly captured in surviving film), just after his selection as the President’s running mate for the November election, Truman saw Roosevelt alone on only two subsequent occasions. There was, in short, no pre-arranged continuity on policy matters: problematical of course for the new President, especially when it came to overseas affairs – which had never been his forte as a Missouri senator – but also, it might be surmised, liberating, permitting Truman, in his relative ignorance, to be his own man right away, something that he, with his confident, assertive personality, seems to have taken to with relish.

His selection for the 1944 ticket resulted from a multiplicity of contingencies – ‘one of those political events shrouded in mystery that will never be entirely unravelled’, suggests Dallek, quoting another of Roosevelt’s biographers, James MacGregor Burns: ‘The President never… pursued a more Byzantine course than in his handling of this question.’ There is a detailed, if tendentious, account of Roosevelt’s tortuous decision-making caprices in the autobiography of one of the contenders for the job (and later Truman’s secretary of state between 1945 and 1947, preceding George Marshall), James F. Byrnes: All in One Lifetime (1958). Byrnes, a South Carolina senator, was convinced he had the vice-presidency ‘in the bag’, as he put it, but in the end lost out on account of his Southern base and the danger that he might cost Roosevelt the black vote in the big cities. The other main contender, the current vice-president (and enthusiastic Zionist), Henry Wallace, seemed too decisively lodged at the other, liberal end of the political spectrum, and as such a risk in the Southern states. Others included Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky (his running mate in 1948). Truman prevailed in the end because of his border-state base in Missouri, his good relations with senators and congressmen across the political spectrum, his past cultivations of union and party bosses, and his long record of loyal support for Roosevelt and the New Deal. Most telling of all were his achievements as chairman of a Military Affairs sub-committee, in which, in the course of hundreds of hearings between 1942 and 1944, he won fame and excellent notices, working vigorously to end profiteering in the arms industry and to ensure that the build-up of the nation’s war-time defences was accomplished with a keen eye on costs and efficacy, saving the country, it was calculated, many billions of dollars.

Foreign policy per se does not seem to have been much of an issue for him, though, coming from Congress, Truman was alert to Zionist aspirations – these, as indicated, having more purchase in the House and Senate than in any other branch of government in Washington. In March 1944 he was one of the 83 senators cited by Rueben Fink (op. cit.) to speak in support of the Wagner-Taft Resolution and its call for government backing for the establishment of ‘a Jewish Homeland’ in Palestine. ‘My sympathy, of course, is with the Jewish people’, he declared, ‘and I am of the opinion that a resolution such as this should be very circumspectly handled until we know exactly where we are going and why….I don’t want to throw any bricks to upset the applecart, although when the right time comes I am willing to help make the fight for a Jewish Homeland in Palestine’. Five years earlier, learning of the British White Paper of 1939 and its severe limits on Jewish immigration into Palestine, he had inserted into the Congressional Record the note that the new policy represented a ‘dishonourable repudiation’ of the country’s Balfour obligations.

These, however, were something less than ringing endorsements – from the man who, in May 1948 (‘the right time’?), took the critical decision to recognise the new-fledged state of Israel. In his memoirs Truman reveals much personal anxiety over the years as to the dangers attending any support for a Jewish homeland. His strong inclination, though, was to give whatever help he could – short of letting numbers of Jews into the U.S. itself – and he was unquestionably more sensitive to the issue of Jewish suffering and displacement than Roosevelt had ever been (while not being averse, as Benson [op.cit] points out, to the occasional use of derogatory language, referencing ‘kykes’ and ‘Hebrews’). As previously suggested, moreover, he was not tied into the policy ambivalences of his predecessor. ‘The plight of the victims who had survived the mad genocide of Hitler’s Germany’, Truman later wrote, ‘was a challenge to Western civilization, and as President I undertook to do something about it’, his first effort being to ask Clement Attlee in London that the British government, still the Mandate authority, remove its ‘drastic restrictions’ on Jewish immigration into Palestine as imposed in its 1939 White Paper. This soon became more specific, with Truman’s request – following the recommendations of a committee chaired by Earl Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, whom he had asked to report on the Jewish camps in Europe – that permits be issued for up to 100,000 immigrants and that restrictions be lifted on land sales to Jews. Attlee refused to budge, insisting, in line with the White Paper, that only 75,000 be allowed in over the following five years. (For further comment, see Part II.)

It was primarily this issue of Jewish suffering in the grim refugee camps that concerned Truman, and not the broader question of Jewish statehood. ‘It was my attitude that America could not stand by while the victims of Hitler’s madness were denied the opportunities to build new lives. Neither, however, did I want to see a political structure imposed on the Near East that would result in conflict (emphasis added). My basic approach was that the long-range fate of Palestine was the kind of problem we had the UN for’. His wish was for ‘the rescue of at least some of the victims of Nazism. I was not committed to any particular formula of statehood for Palestine or to any particular time schedule for its accomplishment’. But he did feel pulled in different directions by contending lobbyists on the issue, his daughter Margaret later recalling that, during his White House years, Truman found Palestine in many ways his most troubling issue of all. Dean Rusk, George Marshall’s assistant in charge of U.N. Affairs (and later John F. Kennedy’s secretary of state), wrote at the time that the President’s particular difficulties arose from ‘conflicting objectives’ in his own mind.

He was, it seems, approaching the issue as ‘circumspectly’ as he had previously advised in Congress; and, in the presidency, was now in receipt of cautionary advice from a number of weighty quarters. The State Department’s hostility to Zionism was as pronounced as ever, the office insisting, in Truman’s words, ‘that we should stay out of any activity that might offend the Arabs’, who, if ‘antagonized…will go over into the Soviet camp’. In a memorandum of September 1945, the Department had insisted: ‘No government should advocate a policy of mass migration [as advocated by Harrison] unless it is prepared to assist in making available the necessary security forces, shipping, housing, employment guarantees….In the view of the foregoing, the United States should refrain from supporting a policy of large-scale immigration into Palestine…’. The report of a joint Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry (discussed in Part II), directed to examine political, economic, and social conditions in Palestine in relation to some ‘permanent solution’ of problems arising from Jewish immigration and settlement, and presented to Truman on 22 April 1946, concluded, by his summary, ‘that the relations of Jews and Arabs were at the present so strained that any attempt to establish independence or nationhood would only result in civil strife’.

Any close American involvement in Palestine would, it was feared, lead to highly problematical military commitment in the Levant. As Dennis Ross (op. cit.) observes, ‘President Truman had to contend with the reality that none of his senior national security officials saw any strategic benefit in supporting Jewish aims in Palestine. On the contrary, they saw only costs’. The President was aware, as he put it, that ‘the country was neither disposed not prepared to assume risks and obligations that might require us to use military force’ – asking Dean Acheson at State to solicit advice from the joint chiefs of staff. They contended, as Truman records, ‘that the political shock attending the reappearance of U.S. armed forces in the Middle East would unnecessarily risk serious disturbances throughout the area far out of proportion to any local Palestine difficulties’. And there was a distinct possibility that the resultant damage this could cause to American and British interests in the region would mean that the Soviet Union might ‘replace the United States and Britain in influence and power throughout the Middle East’. To this they added that control of the oil in the Middle East was a very serious consideration’ – this latter argument ‘in particular’, Truman emphasises, ‘ was one that I had not lost sight of at any time’.

The military, he records, ‘kept talking about two things: our inability to send troops to Palestine if trouble should break out there and, secondly, the oil resources of the Middle East. Secretary [of Defense, James] Forrestal spoke to me repeatedly about the danger that hostile Arabs might deny us access to the petroleum treasures of their countries’. His military advisers warned that over 100,000 troops might be necessary if the U.S. was to protect a new Jewish state against Arab assault – Forrestal reminding him that the numbers of deployable troops available stood at a mere 30,000, with the possible addition of 23,000 marines. Forrestal’s own account in The Forrestal Diaries (1951) reveals his acute concern over any hasty American support for Zionism: ‘no group in this country should be permitted to influence our policy to the point where it could endanger our national security’. A number of oil companies were suspending investments in the Middle East, he claimed, ‘because of the disturbed condition in Palestine and the indications of its continuance’. He told one executive, B. Brewster Jennings, founder of the Socony-Vacuum Company (later Mobil Oil), that he was ‘deeply concerned about the future supply of oil for this country, not merely for the possible use in war, but for the needs of peace. I expressed it as my opinion that unless we had access to Middle East oil, American motorcar companies would have to design a four-cylinder motorcar sometime within the next five years’.

Zionists themselves were causing the President much additional discomfort. They seemed not to realise, he recalled, the damage that was being done to their cause by ‘the increasing acts of terrorism that were being committed in Palestine’. Truman wrote to a friend in the fall of 1946 that the predicament there was looking ‘insoluble’: not only were the British mandatories ‘muddling the situation as completely as it could possibly be muddled, but the Jews themselves are making it almost impossible to do anything for them’. And in Washington he had to contend, as noted, with insistent lobbying for an immediate pro-Zionist ruling. The ‘action of some of our United States Zionists will eventually prejudice everyone against what they are trying to get done’, he wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he had just appointed as a delegate to the United Nations. ‘I fear very much that the Jews are like all underdogs. When they get on top they are just as intolerant and cruel as the people were to them when they were underneath. I regret this situation very much because my sympathy has always been on their side’. As already cited, hundreds of thousands of telegrams and cards flooded into the White House, nearly all from Jewish interest groups. And he was aware of the political imbalance in the lobbying: ‘I know of no pressure except the pressure of the Jews’. In the days following the vote of the United Nations General Assembly, 29 November 1947, proposing the division of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states (see Part II), ‘individuals and groups asked me, usually in rather quarrelsome and emotional ways, to stop the Arabs, to keep the British from supporting the Arabs, to furnish American soldiers, to do this, that, and the other. As the pressure mounted, I found it necessary to give instructions that I did not want to be approached by any more spokesmen for the extreme Zionist cause. I was even so disturbed that I put off seeing Dr. Chaim Weizmann, who had returned to the United States and had asked for an interview with me’.

Part II U.S. Recognition of Israel, 14 May 1948: Truman’s Belated Support

Part III:  U.S. Recognition of Israel, 14 May 1948: ‘A Near-Run Thing’

19th Century 1915 1916 1917 1918 1922 1923 1948 Allenby Anglo-French Declaration anti-semitism Arab Revolt Arabs Balfour Balfour Declaration British Mandate Christian Zionism Churchill Curzon First World War Herzl Hussein Ibn Ali International Law Israel Jew League of Nations Lloyd George Lord Curzon McMahon McMahon Hussain Middle East Montagu Palestine Palestine Mandate Picot Recognition of Palestine restorationism Rothschild Sacred Trust of civilisation Shaftesbury Sherif Hussein Sykes Sykes Picot Weizmann Zionism

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